Colbert Report / Education / Politics

Fact-Based Opinions: The User’s Manual

The game of politics. Some wish they could win it; everyone wishes they could understand it. Naturally, the game involves playing. (It is a game, after all.) So, it comes as no surprise when, during this political season, “Fact Checkers” pop up left and right. We laypeople need the plain truth, not the politicized version of it. 

How are we supposed to get the truth out of politicians when they are trying to win us over? In order to get someone to like what you have to say, you have to say some of the things they like to hear, which might involve muddling up the facts a little bit. Politicians know this trick. We are all familiar with the adage “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but even the youngest generation knows that you can play the ‘facts’ to your advantage.

One might ask, “How can we trust anything a politician says, then? With all this truth-twisting, how can I distinguish between the truth and the almost-truth?”

I propose that the only effective way to know the truth is to research all sides of the issue. It is easy to learn about an issue from one (potentially biased) source and interpret that as the truth. The first source we hear something from will likely affect our outlook on that issue the most; however, despite the fact that your first source may not have been reliable, it is possible to overcome Obstacle #1 and gain a knowledge of the truth. The best way to do this is to know all sides of the issue. If you only know one side, you will likely not be aware of the faults of that viewpoint. If you research other sides, you will be able to understand the criticisms and challenges to your current knowledge, and you will then be able to effectively defend your belief.

This is an especially important practice when forming an opinion. I haven’t done any surveys or polls on this, but it seems evident that there are many people in the world who hear something, either like it or don’t like it, and then have a solid opinion on the issue at hand. Their opinion is based solely on that one source! Regardless of this being the practice of so many, it’s likely not the best option. A better practice would be to begin researching the topic upon hearing about it. Look up news articles, listen to talk radio, watch the news, talk to people. Do whatever you can. (Fortunately, in the era of the internet, we don’t just have to wait until prime time news to do our research. If all else fails, google it! It’s easy.) Come to understand that people have different opinions and interpretations of this issue, and then ask why. Why do you think that? Why do you disagree with this? etc. etc.  By finding out the opinions of others and the reasons they believe what they do, you will begin to formulate your own opinion about the issue. The great thing is, not only will you be forming an opinion, but it will be an educated opinion! That makes it all the more valid.

Knowing all sides of the issue is important not only when forming an opinion, but also when trying to find out the facts. Although we’d like to believe that every news source is unbiased and delivers the facts to us cut-and-dried on a silver platter, news sources are biased. And we know they are biased. This is why we have multiple news sources. When you hear something in the news, before you accept that information as straight fact, you might want to check it out from another news source. And another news source. And maybe even another one! This is so exciting. Because when you get the information from multiple news sources, that is when your knowledge of that particular source is going to be the most accurate. Your knowledge will average out to be pretty unbiased, and from there, you can decide what you think about that information. Just this morning, I was reading an article from the Washington Post that was fact-checking Bill Clinton’s speech from the DNC last night when I came across an article from Politico doing the same thing. Surprisingly, there was some contradictory information! I’m not going to tell you what was being contradicted and what my final conclusions were: this can be your first try at finding out the facts yourself.

Now we can do a little practice. I’ll give you some options, and then you can pick which one will lead you to knowing the largely-unbiased and as-close-to-accurate-as-possible truth.
Pop Quiz

A: You hear about something that was said at the Republican National Convention while watching The Colbert Report. You become angered, because “Why would someone say something so ridiculous?!” Your opinion is decidedly rock-solid and you refuse to change your mind.
B: You hear about something that was said at the Republican National Convention while watching The Colbert Report. You realize that this is satire, and you disregard the matter completely.
C: You hear about something that was said at the Republican National Convention while watching The Colbert Report. You realize that this is satire, but you decide that it might be an issue worth looking into, so you check CNN, The New York Times, and Fox News for information about this issue. After a while, you feel like you know the issue pretty well, and you then form your opinion on the subject.
D: You choose to abstain from watching The Colbert Report.

Answer: __________

If you chose answer C, congratulations! You know how to be a good opinion-former and fact-checker.

If you didn’t choose answer C, never fear. You can work on forming the habit of checking multiple sources and not taking information solely at face value, and soon enough, you’ll be a proficient informed-opinion-maker and fearless-fact-checker, too.

This is a difficult thing. I’m no expert at forming fact- and knowledge-based opinions. However, the more you try — the more you practice, the easier it will become, and soon you will be an informed-opinion-forming virtuoso.

And please, don’t worry: you can still be an informed opinion maker, even if you don’t watch The Colbert Report.